The most fundamental set of skills we can develop in recovery are those related to tolerating discomfort.
Every single problem we run into in recovery stems from our unwillingness or inability to tolerate feeling bad.
If we’re overeating, it’s usually because we cannot or will not tolerate the feeling of wanting to eat something and having the opportunity to eat that thing…but not.
If we’re smoking, it’s because we cannot or will not tolerate the feeling of wanting a cigarette and having the opportunity to have a cigarette…but not.
If we’re self-harming, it’s often because we cannot or will not tolerate whatever we are feeling at the moment, and what we hypothesize we’ll continue to feel if we do not self harm.
If we’re NOT using our skills and tools, it’s usually because we cannot or will not tolerate what we perceive to be the discomfort or inconvenience— the hassle— associated with using them.
Understand, the inability or unwillingness to tolerate feeling bad is not a weird thing. It’s not a thing that makes you weak. It’s not an uncommon thing. Every single human being experiences this problem.
We humans do not like feeling bad, and we are wired to do whatever we can to get away from feeling bad if we can.
The problem being, things that make us feel bad in the short term— like tolerating a food craving without giving in to it, like not having a cigarette even if we really want one, like working out, like removing ourselves from our substances of abuse— are often the only ways to feel good in the long term.
A related problem being, things that make us feel good in short term— giving in to our anxieties, addictions, and compulsions, scratching an itch we’re feeling RIGHT NOW— often lead to much worse feelings and bigger problems down the road.
As a therapist, a big part of my job is to boil things down to basics so we can actually deal with them effectively. I’m fully aware that every behavioral choice we make comes with layers of context and history. What I’m proposing here is not an oversimplification or an overgeneralization.
It is, however, a very straightforward equation.
In order to feel good in the long term, we have to figure out how to tolerate feeling bad in the short term.
Unless we’re willing to take on that problem, we will never change our behavior in meaningful ways.
The good news is: tolerating bad feelings is a skill that can be developed.
For that matter, we have all had the experience of tolerating a bad feeling for a period of time, and the world not ending as a result.
Sometimes we’ve had to tolerate a bad feeling for a period of time because we’ve had no choice— there was no easily accessible option for us to escape that bad feeling. We didn’t have the opportunity to feel otherwise, so we tolerated the bad feeling for a period…and we somehow survived.
It may not have been pleasant, it may not have been preferable…but it was endurable.
That means bad feelings ARE endurable.
This is tremendously good news.
Other times, we’ve tolerated feeling bad because we’ve had a sufficiently compelling reason to do so.
The stakes were high. The “WHY” behind our behavior was real and important to us. So real and important to us, in fact, that it became more real and important to us than escaping the pain of the present moment.
This is more tremendously good news— because it means that we don’t need to lack an escape route to choose to endure a short-term moment of pain.
It means we can CHOOSE to endure that moment of short-term pain in the service of a long-term benefit.
If you’ve read my work over time, you know I’m constantly taking about focus. Our focus determines our reality— and in this case, that truth is dramatically, evocatively illustrated.
If we can learn to condition ourselves to focus on the long-term gain— to make it real, visceral, and important, to bring it closer to our mind’s eye than the short-term pain is— then we can endure essentially anything.
We’re left with the fact that once again: focus is the key.
This is why I don’t believe in “therapy,” per se: I believe in mental training and conditioning.
A purposefully conditioned mind is our only shot at real freedom.
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